Wednesday 20 March 2019

Storm Emma: Was it better to be safe than sorry?

White-out: Seven-year-old Brian O'Rourke from Garryhill, Co Carlow looks up at the top of the snow drifts. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke
White-out: Seven-year-old Brian O'Rourke from Garryhill, Co Carlow looks up at the top of the snow drifts. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke
Sean Hogan
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Seán Hogan, the man in charge of Irish emergencies, is probably hoping for some quieter days ahead in the aftermath of Storm Emma.

The head of the National Emergency Coordination Group was by turns reassuring and alarming as the recent storm approached, telling the public in the strongest terms possible that they should stay indoors.

An engineer by training, Hogan not only plans for emergencies such as storms, he also has overall responsibility for fire safety across the country. The graduate in civil engineering from UCD worked as a volunteer for Concern in Uganda before taking up posts in the fire services in Tipperary and Galway.

He was later appointed principal fire adviser in the Department of the Environment. Storms Ophelia and Emma have turned him into an unlikely celebrity.

Sean Hogan
Sean Hogan

Gerald Fleming, the former head of Met Éireann's forecast division, sat on the National Emergency Coordination group until his retirement last year. "The whole system of coordination, when we have events such as storms, was developed by Seán Hogan," he says. "From his background in the fire service, he takes a hands-on approach to dealing with emergencies."

The country was still feeling the consequences of the white-out by Thursday of this week, with snow continuing to melt, water shortages caused by leaking pipes, and patients thronging emergency wards. Farmers were also counting the cost of repairing shed roofs.

When the emergency group issued its stern warning to the public to stay indoors, and above all not to make unnecessary journeys, it may have seemed alarmist.

After all, in the past, big weather events such as storms simply happened and we just got on with life.

But the group will feel vindicated in bringing many services to a halt, and effectively giving school children and workers two or three "snow days" off.

In Britain, a much more cavalier attitude was taken to Storm Emma, and there were fewer warnings issued, particularly at a central level. Theresa May was mainly focused on Brexit.

There was chaos on roads and railways, particularly in western parts of England, Wales and in Scotland.

There were reports of hundreds of motorists being trapped in their cars on motorways for up to 15 hours, and there were a number of fatal accidents.

The snowdrifts were so deep in some parts that police had to use long poles to hunt for buried cars, and passengers were left stranded overnight on trains. In Ireland, nobody could argue that we had not been warned. Warnings about the Beast from the East began to appear in the Irish media a full week before Storm Emma.

Dr Conor Murphy, climatologist at NUI Maynooth, says: "The warnings worked well in Ireland, and as a result we had fewer fatalities than we might have done."

Gerald Fleming says our system for dealing with major weather events has become more refined since the emergency coordination group was set up nine years ago. When a storm was coming in the past, Met Éireann issued two warnings, the first to the local authorities. They also issued a "severe weather alert" to RTÉ.

Sometimes these warnings were given at short notice, and the authorities and the public had little time to prepare. With forecasts available six or seven days in advance, Met Éireann is now quick to alert Seán Hogan if they think anything untoward is coming Ireland's way. They alerted him to the Beast from the East with a phone call.

By the Monday before the storm, the emergency group was meeting in its customary location - a large room in the Department of Agriculture building in Kildare Street, Dublin.To residents of Ireland from snowier climes, the response to our crisis was one of puzzlement and in some cases amusement.

One observer on Twitter said Storm Emma was like a normal Wednesday in Canada, where people get on with their business.

But the difference in Canada and other snowy countries is that it snows so frequently that it makes sense to invest heavily in clearing equipment.

The UCC climatologist Dr Kieran Hickey says: "When you have an event like this happening no more than once every 13 years on average, it is not sensible to spend large amounts of money on snow clearing equipment."

Dr Conor Murphy says the recent wintry spell showed that we need to rethinks some of our priorities.

"In Ireland, we give a lot of priority to road traffic rather than pedestrians," he says.

"We need to think more about clearing paths. Snow is piled up at the sides of road without any thought about the effect on pedestrians, including elderly people, parents with buggies and people in wheelchairs."

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